Bluegrass and Theology – What’s the Connection?

CHICAGO, IL (February 21, 2011) – Paul Koptak normally leads his students at North Park Theological Seminary in discussions about preaching or books of the Old Testament, including Jeremiah or Proverbs. He helps the class make connections between the past and the present.

But the professor of communications and biblical interpretation won’t be teaching those subjects during the Feast this summer. He instead will lead workshops on another of his passions – bluegrass and traditional country music.

Like in his seminary classes, however, participants will gain insight into what the sometimes-weeping prophets and wisdom spoken from the likes of Ralph Stanley and Johnny Cash have to communicate to us today.

“What I’ve found in the beauty of these songs is that there’s an appeal of the music that springs from the heart,” says Koptak. “The words really describe how people are trying to live.”

Country music by artists such as the Carter family were among the top-selling albums of their time, says Koptak, an avid musician who has studied with some of the best bluegrass players in the country. The honesty of the music as well as the hope it communicates resonates with people, he adds.

The lives and music of the artists who crafted the songs also offer an opportunity to “consider the tension between Saturday night and Sunday morning that is in all our lives, whether we want to admit it or not,” Koptak says.

“We’ll talk some about the contradictions,” he adds. “Johnny Cash was a walking example of sinner and saint his whole life, and Hank Williams knew he was on ‘The Lost Highway.’

“Nobody really understands the contradictions, but this music puts it out there pretty clearly what it means to be in need of help, that somewhere deep down, there is this nagging.”

Koptak first began to study the connection between bluegrass and theology when he delivered a paper on Stanley during a symposium that reflected on his music. Stanley was one of the pioneers of bluegrass and is best known for songs such as “Man of Constant Sorrows,” an old folk tune that he and his band popularized in 1951.

A new generation of listeners was introduced to his music through the movie, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou.” Afterwards, people kept asking him to do workshops. Koptak and several other North Parkers formed the bluegrass band The Lonesome Theologians when he was asked to lead a chapel featuring the traditional music.

Just like the music, the workshop will be down-to-earth. Koptak encourages people to bring their instruments and voices for a jam session in the evening. Books with music and words to sing along will be provided.

The workshops will cover the same ground each day, but will focus on different musicians.

The Feast will take place June 25-28 at the YMCA of the Rockies camp in Estes Park, Colorado, some 65 miles northwest of Denver. Visit the website for more information and to register. Early registration is available through May 3.

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